If you’ve been following my articles over the past several months, you should have noticed a reoccurring theme of mine. If you haven’t, just quickly: I have a passion for video game storytelling and would love to see a day where video games are considered on par with books and film as having strong literary merit.
Because of this, I decided I’d reach out to some of the best experts in storytelling I know, and really try hone in on the questions I have revolving around video game narrative and how we as narrative designers can see story take front row seat in gaming.
So who the hell are these guys?
Jeff is the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a leading expert in the fields of brand story wold development, franchise design and transmedia storytelling. He specializes in the expansion of entertainment properties.
Jeff is also a producer accredited by the Producers Guild of America and has developed the story worlds of film, tv, video games, toys, books and comics. His work has impacted such blockbuster hits as Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Transformers, Spider-Man and Halo.
Edwin is a Narrative Designer, Creative Director and founder of Narrative Limited. He has spent many years in the gaming industry, and is a sought after figure when it comes to world building and creating stories for video games.
With a background in tv scriptwriting, Edwin is probably most well known as the head narrative designer for Grinding Gear Games' MMORPG Path of Exile. Edwin could be considered New Zealand's foremost expert in narrative design, and speaks yearly at the New Zealand Game Developers Conference.
I spoke with both of these guys to try make sense of the confusing world of storytelling and what follows is our interview.
Hi Jeff, let’s get started. I’ve been a big proponent for several years now that video games should be directed towards a level of artistic and narrative merit in which they can be placed on the same stage as modern day literature.
It seems to me that until this happens, games will continue to fall into the stigma of being solely toys, useful for monetary gain but that’s about it. What are your thoughts on my position? Do you agree? Where do you think we currently are in achieving this? What do you think needs to happen for games to be treated this way?
Jeff: Hi Nick, well, one of the main roadblocks to the evolution of the perception that video games can be viewed as a serious art form has been the constant and rapid changes in platform and distribution.
Technology has been a double-edged sword for the gaming industry.
With every new improvement in resolution, visual dynamism, control, and power, game publishers have pushed developers to restate their stories with stronger punch. We can splatter our enemy’s brains ever more spectacularly, but we are not encouraged to create deeper, more emotional contexts around the violence. In terms of narrative, this has put the form into a kind of three decade-long arrested development.
So, while there has been enormous progress in terms of how technology can convey images, movement, and interactivity in truly artful ways, video games are still not taken as seriously as other art forms, because there have been so few truly transcendent, soul-edifying (but also commercial and profitable) video game experiences.
Also, by constantly ruminating on specific gameplay and genre tropes, we have trained video game players to resist experimentation. There remains a terror of “dead spots” where the player isn’t killing, steering, making some life or death choice, or solving some complex puzzle. And the publishers aren’t wrong to fear them, because this is how player have been wired for years and years. It’s a natural preventative that keeps the form arrested.
I do think there are some positive signs on the horizon.
Remember, the American comic book industry had been in a similar arrested mode for decades with the super hero genre. This wasn’t the case in the Japanese or French comic book markets, where there has always been an array of genres, and a major global pop culture property could emerge from any one of them (Ghost in the Shell, Heavy Metal, Attack on Titan), that would be respected for artistic merit.
We’re now starting to see experimentation and remarkable diversity in the American comics. Comic books and graphic novels are being treated seriously by Hollywood, the big New York publishing houses, and by adults who are reading them while riding the subway to work. The same may be starting to happen with games.
We are arriving at a zenith of sorts with video game tech. We are near photo realism; crossing that uncanny valley. Virtually anything you can imagine can show up. We’ve exhausted variations on violence. Relatively flat sales on console games are an indicator that the player is looking for something more. App sales, competitive gaming, and the praise and great sales heaped on projects like The Last of Us are indicators that the audience is maturing and seeking out alternatives. There are also far more women into gaming than ever before, and that is going to impact the market and the way developers approach narrative.
I’m truly hoping that developers push for greater sophistication in video game storytelling—which doesn’t mean these things have to become feature film-like by any stretch—and that publishers hear them out and give them the space to express these new artistic visions.
Edwin: I think there are already many games that have crossed the Entertainment/Art barrier. The Stanley Parable, TIMEframe, Journey and Tale of Two Brothers have approached gaming with strong philosophical questions in mind. And each one has endeavored to creative an ‘experience’ for the player that transcends the usual gaming fare of achievement, violence and the general stroking of egos for the purpose of coaxing digits out of credit cards.
The main issue seems to be that games are so expensive to make, at least the ones that reach the headlines of gaming portals. Publishers are understandably tentative when engaging with gaming ‘Art’ projects because there’s no guarantee of a financial return for them. So these projects have invariably been spearheaded by Indies with minimal tools and shoestring budgets. Therefore they suffer from fidelity shortfall. The Stanley Parable is a remarkable gaming experience yet it looks like some much outdated garbage when placed along something with the sheer style and audio-visual clout of The Last of Us. Yes, that’s the ‘arty’ AAA title that keeps getting bandied about, but does it really have the emotional and metaphysical clout of The Road or even 28 Days Later?
I think the secret sauce for Gaming as Art is this. Games shouldn’t try to ‘out art’ existing mediums. It needs to find it’s own way, through the one thing it has that Film and TV doesn’t. Interactivity. Game mechanics.
Every narrative medium has a different set of strong points and weak points. What is it about interactive narratives that you find most exciting in terms of breaking boundaries and doing new things in the world of storytelling?
Jeff: Any time you are changing your storytelling from “this is what happened” to “this is what is happening to you” you are breaking boundaries and doing something radical. But this form of narrative is enormously difficult to do well, because it takes ego to be a storyteller. You are placing yourself on a pedestal of sorts, because you know something the audience doesn’t know, and you’re going to manipulate them, make them laugh, cry, scared, cheer. Like in any classroom, you are the master teacher and they are your pupils, and you hold all the power.
There’s a significant difference in interactive storytelling that can readily expose the strengths and weaknesses of even the best storyteller. By its nature, interactivity means that your audience is literally participating in the story. Some game developers still look at that participation with disdain. They’d almost rather the player not be there, because they’re getting in the way of this narrative system that’s unfolding. So, choices are minimized, roadblocks and head-to-head combat are maximized, and sometimes it feels as if the game is out to get you, purposefully trying to kill you off and be done with it. “I am the master, and you are unworthy of my impossible tests!” The latest statistics are that only 30% of all console games sold are completed all the way through by the player and this is why. The audience to this art form is hammered until they fail to endure and give up.
Video games will reach new levels of excitement and break new boundaries when more developers come to understand that the player can be trusted to be the hero of the story, experiencing the full range of emotions, aspirations, and choices that are available to human beings, rather than just the extremes. But there are a lot of factors that go into pulling this off successfully, the first and foremost being that in the case of video game interactivity, the storyteller must in some ways sublimate himself or herself to the player character.
This means the developer is no longer standing as an obstacle against the player, someone generating ever more diabolical means of smashing and killing the player. Instead the developer is someone who is there to actualize the player character; someone who is using metaphor, antagonism, world design, emotion, and action to convey messages, themes, a system of philosophy to the player character that puts them through a process of realization and enlightenment.
Edwin: Choice and consequence, the two words that are gaming’s breakthrough contribution to the world of literature. In other mediums, choice and consequence are vicarious. We learn from seeing, from hearing, from modeling others. It’s up to us to discern right from wrong and ape those chosen behaviors in our real lives, if a similar opportunity ever arises.
By contrast, interactive narratives enable players to practice choice and consequence. It puts them in the hot seat and demands to know what they’re going to do, right here, right now. And the beauty of it is, there are usually second chances. And third, and fourth. A film character only gets to make their choice once. A player gets to make it as many times as there are choice options available. They can literally try consequences on for size, see how they fit, how they feel.
It’s one of the most fundamental facts in human education. We learn by doing. Interactive narratives offer trial and error in a safe, virtual environment.
Writing for film and TV is often vastly different to writing for a medium such as the novel. There are obviously certain techniques and conventions that work well for prose that don’t translate well on screen. With video games, the same issue is true.
How do we take pre-established writing techniques and adapt them to the interactive medium? Can we do this or does an entirely new toolbox of skills need to be used for games to function well in regards to plot and character?
Jeff: To pick up on what I was saying in my previous answer, there is a significant shift in mentality between the writer who is driving a character over whom there is complete control, as in film, television or even the novel, and the mentality of the writer who is in effect creating a duet with another human being, a person who is literally participating in the narrative, live as it unfolds.
If the game developers (inclusive of the game writer) force the narrative into a linear progression of plot points, the player will feel railroaded, and the experience becomes artificial. It can still be fun because the gameplay is cool, but the world and the emotional response will never feel truly alive; the equivalent of being run in a cart on rails through an amusement park haunted house.
So yes, there needs to be an interactive narrative toolset mixed into the standard linear narrative tools that creators can use to build effective video game experiences. Those newer tools need to more effectively generate the illusion and the reality of choice. They need to compel us to proceed on the journey designed to unfold in the game, but they also need to somehow convey that there are any number of ways the player can go about fulfilling the quest. They even need to provide alternatives to illustrate the consequence of leaving the path or taking no action. None of this is easy!
Edwin: I honestly don’t think there’s much point in comparing the various writing techniques necessary for each storytelling platform. A writer from another platform, when considering writing a game, simply needs to be prepared to almost completely relearn their craft. That said, the ability to write good dialogue will always be valuable in the games industry. Good, punchy, succinct dialogue.
For amateur writing wanting to become a professional game writing, I’d recommend two things. Write interactive fiction using tools like Inkle and Inform 7 to get a feel for how narratives can be ‘played’ rather than read. And write a ton of short stories and even poetry. Short-form writers seem to adapt to game writing far more easily than long-form writers do.
Let’s talk immersion. I’m a bit of a cry baby when it comes to film and TV. If a story hits all the right emotional peaks, you’ll see me choking back tears. Games however — I can count on one hand the amount of times I have been immersed to the point where characters and plot developments have had a strong emotional impact on me.
Yet, in games we can become the character. So why is it harder to get that emotional punch? What can we as storytellers and designers do to change this?
Jeff: In many cases, it’s not for lack of wanting to deliver these knock-out emotional blows. These are some of the first things Starlight Runner asks of developers when we get involved in a major video game franchise’s creative. Where’s the big twist? What is going to be the gut-wrenching revelation? How are we going to feel the player character’s sacrifice? How do we play that key moment of “I can’t…but I must!” to maximum impact? Often, the answer we’re given is, “Can’t get there from here!”
We’re given many reasons, but key is the belief that powerful emotions can only be conveyed properly through detailed facial expressions, and doing this is very expensive and time consuming in video game animation. At first blush, I think this can be seen as a good point. Games still have a hard time conveying those subtleties that we’ve come to expect from film and television, or even feature animation. But two of the most visceral and emotional experiences I’ve ever had was with Final Fantasy VII and with Zelda: Ocarina of Time, both in the 1990s. Facial animations were extremely limited back then, but the combination of plot, atmosphere, music and circumstance caused my throat to tighten. I think game developers ought to trust these factors more and risk creating these kinds of scenes without using the limitations of animation as an excuse.
Edwin: In film, TV and books, the characters have our absolute attention. We’re studying them closely, picking up on every nuance, every flicker of emotion. They become close friends in less than an hour because we learn so much about them in such a short time. By contrast, games are filled with numerous distractions called ‘gameplay’. So rather than trying to squeeze emotion out of our game characters, we should be engineering gameplay situations where the player feels the story walls closing in on them. Rather than watch a character do something soul-shaking and ask themselves, ‘what have I done?’, get the gamer to ask that same questions of themselves.
It seems one of the biggest obstacles in gaming taking on literary qualities has to do with gameplay.
If you think about the great novels of western literature for example — such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls — the guts of the story are concerning relationships between characters and at times mundane every day moments. The bulk of the novel is a build up towards a battle, and it is through this build up that the themes are on display.
So, is it possible to gamify something like that? Currently games tend to be mostly non-stop action, there’s rarely any breathing time for theme to build in the subconscious of the player. How can writers create that nuance between action and emotion while still keeping players engaged and interested?
Jeff: Well, we’ve seen similar complaints in recent popular movies, haven’t we? Fear of boredom can be justified in a world where it is now so easy to tune out and start flipping through your social media. There are so many other choices: “if this entertainment starts to drag I’m out of here.” So, movies are cutting down on character development to get to the action, and video games never really started to do that in the first place.
But there are two pieces of evidence that indicate the potential for change, both tied into the rise of long form storytelling in popular media. Television series are becoming more novelistic, particularly genre shows, where epic narratives are unfolding in ways that are far more systemic and nonlinear, rather than hurtling forward toward, cause-and-effect, simple violence and simple resolutions. Look at Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Westworld, and the Marvel series on Netflix. A generation is being raised on these shows, learning to take the long hits, gasping at the explosive violence and sudden twists of plot, enjoying the payoffs, while understanding that the road goes ever on. We’re starting to see video games start to pick on this with projects like Batman: The Telltale Games series.
The second piece of evidence is in shared universe motion pictures and transmedia franchises, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Extended Universe, and Star Wars. Here we see epic storytelling across different, ostensibly self-contained movies, or across films, TV animation, novels, and comics. So, themes and plot points that are seeded in earlier projects come to fruition in later projects, and they retain powerful resonance with each other and with the audience. We effectively become participants, because we are given blanks to fill in between stories, we recognize subtle turns, and become exhilarated when something set up earlier (sometimes years ago) suddenly reaches fruition.
This makes me believe that in the coming years, audiences who have grown to appreciate this kind of storytelling will not mind (and even become thrilled by) seeing it realized in their video games. This takes unique narrative design skills, but I’m hoping that good video game designers will aspire to these skills and want to infuse them into individual and sequential game series.
Edwin: That’s a tough one, and it comes down to simple, old brain science. Dopamine is now the drug of choice for our age of voracious media consumption. This has always been the case, ever since the invention of Penny Dreadfuls, in fact. Stories to thrill rather than genuinely move or entertain. However, the world has changed and now Penny Dreadfuls are the norm rather than the exception. If a game developer wants to go after the adjectives that aren’t ‘epic’ or ‘awesome’ then they have to get out of the dopamine dealing business. That means leaving a ton of money on the table, but perhaps getting some of their soul back into the bargain.
Moving more into the transmedia side of things, how do games sit in the importance of a transmedia franchise? How do we make sure each aspect of a transmedia franchise flows well into one another?
Jeff: Video games present a unique challenge in transmedia storytelling, because the presence of choice allows for players to do things that may ultimately push the narrative out of canon. Can a video game ever truly present a narrative that fits intrinsically into the greater mythology of a franchise story world? Well, only if the outcome of the game is binary, meaning you either succeed or fail to realize this leg of the narrative, and if you fail it didn’t happen. But most good games won’t offer this kind of binary, because that’s boring.
When Starlight Runner consults on games that are extensions of established franchises, we most often recommend that the subject of the game not be a straight adaptation of the movie or some other established story. We recommend that the plot involve something complementary to the core narrative you see in the movie or TV show, both thematically, and in terms of an event that helps to expand the world of the franchise, showing us new things, giving us new insights, constantly surprising us.
By moving away from the hard plots that comprise established canon, we can start building our own extensions, which can be canonical, but do not have to be precise. Look at the Activision Transformers games that take place in and around Cybertron eons ago, when the Autobots first came into conflict with the Decepticons. That’s awesome, because not that much is known about that part of the Transformers mythology, and yet the action surrounding that narrative lends itself perfectly to the video game medium. Did those events take place exactly as the player experiences them in the game? For the most part, yes—and I should know, because Starlight Runner helped to nail down that mythology for Hasbro and Activision—but because the story dates back to such antiquity, the audience would forgive storytellers who add or subtract some narrative tweaks.
The result is that we get an exciting, meaningful and insightful addition to the mythos of our favorite universe, and the narrative flows into the rest of the franchise, but there is enough wiggle room to make needed alterations should we ever revisit the story in another medium. I think video game fans will allow for that.
Edwin: Games have been in the transmedia business since almost their inception. I remember playing the 007 Living Daylights game on my Atari 600XL back in the late 80s. I loved ‘Living Daylights’ because I’m a fan of watching James Bond save the world. In the game, I got to be James Bond for a little while. I think games that are based on franchises succeed when they capture the feel of a character or world. I guess the fundamental question would be, in your Batman game, are you allowing the player to be as visceral, complicated and ultimately noble as the Dark Knight of film and comics. If so, I’d call that a successful piece of transmedia.
There are some literary elitists who would argue that games and even a transmedia franchise including more traditional forms of literature are inherently lower in quality and artistic merit, what strategies would you suggest we use to push past this stigma and prove them wrong?
Jeff: In Japan, transmedia popular culture has been a way of life since the early 1960s. Franchises like Godzilla, Gundam, Ultra Man, and Evangelion are considered great works of pop art, to be taken seriously by their owners, by academics, and by their cultural ministries. In the United States, we have considered our equivalent properties to be juvenile and unworthy of serious consideration for a lot longer, and have only started to take them seriously in the last couple of decades, with the rise of Pixar and Harry Potter, and growing respect for Star Wars and Marvel.
Frankly, I stopped worrying about whether or not a project is worthy of artistic merit by so-called critics when I realized that popular success forces everyone to take a story at least somewhat seriously. In order to connect with a huge number of people over long periods of time (as opposed to various fads and trends) there has to be some form of artistic merit inherent in the property. Time often tells that tale.
So, the strategy I would always recommend is to take storytelling seriously, find and employ the best storytellers you can in your video games, and support that narrative vision across every aspect of the game and gameplay — rally your entire team in service to the story, so that everyone at the studio, no matter what their technical or creative contribution might be, feels as if they have a stake in the best possible communication of that story and that narrative experience.
As an audience, we’ve become sophisticated enough to recognize and parse story. Story is slowly becoming a distinguisher of quality and uniqueness in games. We’ll remember the ones that involved us in great story, and we’ll recommend them to our friends. That yields sales and builds franchises.
E: The effort to prove people wrong is better spent on simply creating something that you feel proud of.
Games are expensive to make, and many AAA studios seem reluctant to take risks on original ideas and or different, less proven narratives.
As such, a lot of what we are seeing in regards to solid game stories are now coming from smaller indie studios that unfortunately often don’t have the finances available to really pull off amazing presentation.
We’ve already started to see some creative work-arounds to this issue, but what would you suggest in terms of getting the voice of the writer heard by those big studios, so that large scale ambitious projects can find the funding they need?
How do we convince AAA studios to stop flooding the markets with clichéd games that are consistently failing when it comes to strong narratives?
Jeff: It’s a time-honored conundrum. To this day, the writer is seen by a lot of studios as the obstacle or the addendum. The reason for this is that video games rose not out of the writing discipline, but out of the software design discipline. These are the people who will always build the maze first and populate it with monsters. The people who tell you why you’re going into the maze and why you’re fighting the monsters were not among them when video games began. The storyteller was the kid at home who opened up the Dungeons & Dragons box and started making up reasons for you to go into the castle and fight the beasts.
The problem was compounded when Hollywood agents started to pump movie screenwriters into the industry. While they were good at linear narratives, they didn’t know much about the limitations and possibilities they were dealing with in games, and so there were a number of bad experiences and failures with them. Game writing is its own beast, far more similar to telling stories in tabletop roleplaying games than standard screenwriting. It takes a special talent to do that well.
My belief is that the power is in the hands of fans. More than ever before we are capable of pointing out good video game storytelling and making some noise about it. We can write about it, relating how the experience made us feel—how awesome it was. Game companies pay attention to that and that’s where positive reinforcement can make a difference.
Edwin: ‘We’ can only get the AAAs to take more risks, to be more creative, by resisting the urge to buy their safe and boring games. There’s no voice louder than money in the mass media industry. The answer there sits with us gamers and the choices we are making with our time and money. We’ve seen the apparel industry change over the last few years, with many big name brands shifting from sweatshop labor to ethical production methods, from exploitation to sustainability. The same is possible in the games industry. When we start making better choices, the industry will start making better choices.
I want to thank both Jeff and Edwin for taking the time to speak with me. They have provided a lot of great stuff for me and my fellow narrative designers to chew on, as well as folks that work on the programming side of the industry.
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